VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis Wednesday called for prayers for a group of nuns seized from their convent in Syria and for all hostages held in the war-torn country.
"I invite you all to pray for the nuns of the Greek Orthodox convent of St Takla of Maaloula in Syria who were forcibly taken away by armed men two days ago," Francis said at a general audience in St Peter's Square.
"We pray for these nuns and for all kidnap victims in the conflict," he said.
Syrian rebels this week took 12 nuns from the historic town of Maaloula, which has been at the center of fierce fighting for months, to the nearby stronghold of Yabrud.
It was not immediately clear whether the nuns had been kidnapped or merely evacuated for their own safety.
"The 12 nuns were forced from the convent by an armed group who they went with on the road to Yabrud," which is in rebel hands, the Holy See's nuncio Mario Zenari told AFP on Tuesday.
Reached by phone, the mother superior of the Saydnaya convent in Damascus province, Sivronia Nabhan, said she had spoken with her Maaloula counterpart, who confirmed the nuns were in Yabrud.
Maaloula mother superior Pelagia Sayyaf said "she and the 11 other nuns, accompanied by three young maids, were comfortably installed in a house in Yabrud and no one was bothering them," Nabhan said.
The two nuns spoke on Monday evening, Nabhan added.
Rebel forces, including jihadists from the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front, on Monday recaptured Maaloula, which lies north of Damascus, from regime forces after three days of heavy clashes.
The nuns were among the few residents left in the hamlet, and were sheltering inside the convent.
In September, they were trapped inside the building with dozens of orphans during the first round of fighting between regime forces and rebels in the town.
Maaloula has long been a symbol of the ancient Christian presence in Syria. Its residents are some of the few left in the world who speak Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ is believed to have spoken.